I had promised myself at the outset that I would not get wound up about the divorce referendum in Malta. In my dual-citizen family, divorce is a big non-issue. We know a second marriage has longevity and provides a space and a loving home for two independent spirits and a beautiful child. For us, divorce is a basic civil right that very few people exercise lightly. Even if only 1% of the population needs a divorce – and by all accounts, that percentage is way off the mark – there needs to be an equitable system in place to allow people and their respective families to get on with their lives after a marriage has broken down. It was just surreal that Malta was resorting to a referendum to decide if it should continue to form part of a club of two, where the other member was the Philippines (not the Vatican).
I did what many of my generation in Malta do when there is a case of ‘moral panic’ and barricaded myself. I refused to watch local TV or buy the print media, nodded when someone brought up the subject and stayed busy. As always, I found my head space online, beyond the confines, insularity and politics of the pjazza and the work place.
The divorce referendum campaign was never going to be pretty. We are made for diatribe not debate: I shout and you listen – even better if we both shout at the same time because that way, nobody can understand anything any more. The Church turned back the clock to use the canon of the pulpit to dispense fire and brimstone. It would have been laughable were it not backed by Chapter 1, Article 2 of the Constitution of Malta. The Nanny state is alive and well, and not just in its formal vestiges. There was no shortage of people waiting to tell us how to live our lives, raise our kids and keep us on the straight and narrow. In Malta, women over size 10 were told to vote ‘No’ to ensure that their husbands (regardless of shape or character) have no divorce escape clause. Violent men need to be restrained to one marriage, as divorce will enable them to offend in other marriages. Politicians, supposedly freed of party whips and traditional party polarisation, generally made a fool of themselves. A few, good journalists in the mainstream media worked overtime to try and wriggle some space for critical analysis, despite the hegemonic political and business ownership of the institutions that employed them.
Something snapped when the billboards went up. Suddenly, it felt like 1984 all over again. Not Orwell’s, but the Malta some of my generation ran away from and had thought would never come back. The billboards were a throwback to the worst propaganda of the late seventies and early eighties – except that now we replaced the charcoal wall violence with messages warning about the choice between darkness and eternal damnation and safeguarding shiny happy families. When you hear people in suits saying they are proud your country rejects civil rights which are universal, you remember that islands that turn their backs on the rest of the world can quickly become very dangerous places. We can turn to our relatively recent history to find how easy it is for extreme views to root.
My tribe – the tribe of silent people who normally decide elections and influence others – found redemption and a voice in their keyboards and social media. Blogs mushroomed out of nowhere, making some believe that we had discovered a phenomenon, when some people in Malta have been blogging since 2002. For every billboard with a crying child and a cutout family, there is now a more famous counterpart on Divorzistan and Moviment Tindahalx. Welcome to some serious rage. Welcome to parody. Welcome to Photoshop for democracy.
Whatever the vote, I don’t think we’ve heard the end of this. The political parties and the church, as a bare minimum, will need to take stock of their respective campaigns. Perhaps the Church will look into the mirror and find some way of re-engineering itself. Perhaps Government will rethink its questionable strategy of putting all its stock in the Church, and finally acknowledge that we should be living in a secular state. Perhaps the law to ‘regularise separated couples’, which reminds me of a previous attempt to reintroduce VAT legislation by another name, will be sidelined in favour of workable divorce legislation. Perhaps the local mainstream media will understand that citizen journalism is more than blogs under a print masthead, and may even help reengineer its offer before it becomes irrelevant.
When I first saw Jesus on a billboard I nearly crashed my car. Now, I merely shake my head and smile. Sometimes, when he’s so inclined, He nods back sadly.
It’s as if this thing called Malta, bound together by the superglue of the Church, has cracked, and we’re still waiting to see how many shards there are. When we get to pick them up, we’ll have to see how sharp they are before we try and reach for the glue again. Who knows, maybe we’ll just stop trying to bundle all the pieces in the same box. Perhaps we’ll stop applying our own filters to attribute colours, labels and filters. Perhaps we’ll finally stop living the lie and quietly celebrate diversity, like the rest of the world does.
I live in the hope that when my generation dies, it is replaced by another that will neither compromise nor run away. But stand its ground and take this tiny, stubborn, bounded country kicking into the 21st century.